Brilliant black clergyman, farmer, businessman, civil magistrate, author, and Oklahoma pioneer Samuel R. Cassius, born a slave in Virginia, migrated around 1890 to future Logan County, before the age of forty. When he departed over thirty years later, he left a regional and national legacy as a leading African-American in the famed Restoration Christian movement. He dared to challenge white Christians on their racism and blacks on both their religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy. He stirred controversy aplenty from all quarters, sustained by the conviction that the very words that angered folks could stir them to greater faithfulness as Americans, followers of Christ, and human beings.
According to Cassius, two key factors spurred African-American initiative and hopes in 1890s Oklahoma Territory, which formed roughly the western half of present-day Oklahoma. He cited the first of these as the belief of many African-Americans that the U.S. government would reserve land (probably the Unassigned Lands opened in the 1889 Land Run) for blacks that was forfeited to it by defeated pro-Confederate tribes. This widely held belief—yearned for by African-Americans, but feared by whites—held that Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory adjacent to it on the east would birth an all-black, or at least strongly black-influenced state.
“When the colored people heard this report,” Cassius recalled, “they all started to Oklahoma, some walking, some on the train, some in oxcarts and some in wagons. No thought was given to money. In fact, the most of them had no money to think of; all they wanted was to get there.”
The front cover of Edward J. Robinson’s powerful work on Samuel Robert Cassius and his writings.
The second factor Cassius suggested, as explained in Edward J. Robinson’s book To Life Up My Race: The Essential Writings of Samuel Robert Cassius, involved the exalted claims of African-Americans who won land during the first run and declared it “only a day’s walk to the original Garden of Eden.” It teemed with game, so the story went, such as “wild turkeys and deer . . . so plentiful that a man had to carry a Winchester and a large club when he went out hunting, the club to be used in beating the deer and turkeys back while he loaded his gun.”
The Black Man in Oklahoma, 1896
You kin talk about your cities with their steeples in the skies,
Their nice paved streets and their business enterprise;
We ain’t got no sidewalks, and there’s nothing here to see,
But the little town of Boley is plenty big enough for me.
—Samuel Robert Cassius
The notable entry into Oklahoma of Edward P. McCabe, a black man who possessed enormous charisma and energy and had held statewide elected office in Kansas, heightened the climate of anticipation. This only escalated as McCabe tirelessly promoted African-American migration to Oklahoma. He also helped found the all-black town of Langston, near Guthrie, in 1891, as well as a “colored” college of the same name in 1897.
Early Langston College student body. Founded by Oklahoma pioneer Edward P. McCabe, the Logan County institution, now Langston University, was one of the first historically black colleges west of the Mississippi River. Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.
Social, economic, and political opportunities in the Twin Territories, fostered by dauntless visionaries like Cassius and McCabe, appeared bright for African-Americans throughout the 1890s and well into the 1900s due to their own energy and ambition, along with their alliance with the white-dominated Republican Party. Subsequent progress would, however, prove a hard road for black Oklahomans to travel—more so, ironically, following statehood in 1907. Nonetheless, they founded scores of successful businesses, including newspapers, movie theaters, banks, restaurants, salvage yards, and hospitals. Also, according to historian Jimmie Franklin, sourcing the U.S. Bureau of the Census regarding the 1910 census, African-Americans owned more than 1.5 million acres of land in future Oklahoma by 1905.
Samuel Robert Cassius - teacher, philosopher, and theologian
By the time Samuel R. Cassius departed Oklahoma in the early 1920s, he had left an enduring mark on the state’s history, and thousands of blacks were crafting rewarding lives for themselves and their families, despite the unconstitutional and unchristian oppression of societal racism.
“The negro may look awful bad after he has wrestled with a cyclone, or had a tussle with a blizzard, but when he looms up in a cotton patch he is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A bay steer in a fodder stack would not inspire the lover of art with more reverence than would the average colored farmer standing amid the white sea of cotton. It has long been conceded that Oklahoma was made for the colored man, and the colored man for Oklahoma. Here it is he will demonstrate to the world his fitness for an equal show with the dominant race. Already he has assumed the responsibility of making Oklahoma the most prosperous land in America, for without a dollar or team, hoe, plow, or in fact anything but his wife, children and dogs, he has snatched this country out of the jaws of famine and the hand of ruin by raising over three million dollars’ worth of cotton.”
—Samuel Robert Cassius